Jon Everist is an award-winning composer for video games. He wrote the music for BATTLETECH, the SHADOWRUN series, NECROPOLIS and the upcoming first person shooter DISINTEGRATION by V1 Interactive. He is the winner of GameMusic.Net’s People’s Choice Award in 2018, the Jerry Goldsmith Award, and was nominated for the ASCAP Composer’s Choice Award for Best Video Game Score.
I’ve been making music for most of my life and have been a professional composer for video games and film for about 8 years. I’ve been extremely lucky. I get a fair amount of emails and DM’s asking similar questions, and I always try respond with as much care as I can because I’ve been there. I’ve sent those emails to people whose work or career I admired and have gotten thoughtful or dismissive responses that really affected me and shaped how I approached turning my passion for writing music into a career.
I worked insane hours learning the craft and putting that work into practice.
Every single composer, regardless of their current popularity, was once ‘just starting out’ and trying to get their break in this industry. In many ways, that sense of hustle never changes. As artists and craftspeople, we never feel fully settled or satisfied and are always moving forward, honing our craft and continuously learning. This is the nature of the business, so learning to love the hustle from the beginning is a great trait. Reaching out to an established composer to pick their brains is great, but some questions are not so clear cut.
Let’s not try to sugarcoat it: this business has a miniscule success rate and can be utterly brutal and unfair. The idea that everyone (especially in America) has an equal shot, or that those who can write the best music will always rise to the top is a fantasy. Survivorship biases aside – most composers can simplify their trajectory in this industry down to one or two ‘key moments’ that set the direction of their career in motion. Most of these moments involve a lot of luck (and/or privilege), a fair (or crippling) amount of risk, and real relationships. This brings me to one of the most common questions I get…
Assuming you want to write orchestral or hybrid music and can learn all the technical knowledge on your own, the short answer is: no. BUT, if we look above at what usually constitutes a big break, going to music school does seem to increase the odds. I’m going to focus beyond the obvious benefit of schooling (the regimented learning of concepts and principles which serve to make you a better and more competent composer) and assume that you’d pursue that knowledge on your own time anyway. Schooling is a privilege and is not equally accessible by everyone. It involves a whole lot of risk and potentially crippling amounts of debt.
Depending on the school, you’ll probably have access to a network of people who are already active in the industry, which is a huge benefit. For me, I was lucky and privileged enough to be in a stable job before I made the dangerously risky decision to cash out my retirement and spend all of my savings to go back to school. It was a dramatic career shift and I put absolutely everything into it. I was only able to afford 2 years at DigiPen studying Music for Video Games before I could no longer afford tuition and had to drop out, amassing $40k in student loans. It was a terrifying time for me. I had mortgaged my entire future on this decision to go “all in” on my dream of becoming a composer. I was staring in the face of three life altering failures, 1: not getting the degree I quit my job for, 2: not having stable composing income before leaving school, and 3: not having any savings or retirement while adding a heart attack inducing amount to my debt.
This is where survivor’s bias can creep in. Despite all the evidence showing I was mere seconds away from going down with the Titantic, music never to be heard by anyone, I was pulled to safety and survived by a lucky break. When I look back on this time with my 20/20 gold-plated rose-tinted lenses; I did capitalize on my time in school didn’t I? I made music incessantly. I took on as many student game projects as I could score.
I tried to write the best music I could for each project given to me. I had incredible guidance and mentorship from accomplished composers and professors. I won student awards for music, made lifelong friends and continuously tried to make myself as employable as I could. I worked insane hours learning the craft and putting that work into practice. I was destined for success, wasn’t I? The issue with that way of thinking is that I I’d wager most if not all people in music school would say the same thing about themselves. When you come to terms with that, it’s hard to justify the risk. In the end, I got my first break when an artist I had worked with on a student game mentioned me to the head of a studio she now worked for, and they needed music. That studio was Harebrained Schemes and the game was Shadowrun.
Genuine friendships are the keystone of a great career.
I often think about this question in the context of my own experience, and though I cannot imagine I’d ever be successful as a composer had I not chosen to go back to school, I still hesitate when suggesting that ‘all-in’ path to everyone knowing how close I was to catastrophic failure. There are so many resources available online or at your local library. If you are writing music for orchestra or live ensembles, it’s hard to beat proper schooling, but you can learn those things on your own or with online resources that are much cheaper.
Berklee has online programs that, while still pricy, are a fraction of the cost of traditional schools. Much of my advice to budding composers is to try to surround themselves with people who are making games. Genuine friendships are the keystone of a great career. If you can’t get to meetups in person – do your best to connect digitally. The game audio community is a group of some of the nicest and most open people I know. Keep making music, and keep getting your music in the hands of people making games.